Archive for the ‘Sense of community’ Tag

Tewkesbury and Floods: Known by Association?   Leave a comment

Despite being 5 years ago, the notion and pictures of a flooded Tewkesbury came into the public spotlight once again. During the rain in late April of this year, Tewkesbury once again flooded; however, the flood waters were much lower than they had been 5 years earlier. The media and the public quickly likened the event to the 2007 floods, to the extent that visitors to the town were ringing businesses to see if they were ‘open for business’, while other stayed away altogether, anxious to get stuck in a flooded town.

However, as we have seen and discussed in other blog posts, this flood was very much a normal, seasonal flood with the floodplains surrounding the market town under water. ‘Seasonal flood’ is very much a buzz word amongst Tewkesbury residents to encourage people to come to the town during these types of flood events despite what they may read or hear in the media. A BBC article explores the use of phrases like ‘seasonal floods’ and ‘open for business’ from Tewkesbury residents as a counter strategy to the flood reputation built up within the media. This article asks 5 Tewkesbury residents from different walks of life the same question:

So, five years on, how has it felt to see the town back in the national spotlight after heavy rains led to seasonal flooding?

Despite answering the question from different angles, the respondents portray a range of shared beliefs and attitudes. The continual association of Tewkesbury with the 2007 floods and its floodplain location is the main issue. The residents feel that due to the extreme flood event in 2007 the perception amongst the public is that all subsequent normal floods have the same impact. This perception is confirmed by the media:

“After all we did as a community when we surrounded the Abbey with colour and music and laughter (“Over the Rainbow” event, 2008) and said “we’ve got over this”, but it doesn’t appear that the media is capable of getting over it.

They are trying to make Tewkesbury and flooding an open sore, and it isn’t.

[This week] I have seen nothing that hasn’t happened three times a year all the 14 years that I have been the town crier”.

Town Crier

Due to the media referring to 2007 during any flood since then, visitors tend to:

“…….think that Tewkesbury is virtually shut but it’s not.

I have had customers phoning up asking if we are going to be open and I have had family and friends phoning up to make sure we are alright. Everything’s fine.”

B&B Owner


This frustration leads to the residents’ coming together to propagate the concept of ‘seasonal floods’ and to advertise that Tewkesbury is ‘open for business’ to the general public. They wanted to teach the wider public to differentiate between the two scales of floods – seasonal, i.e. ‘normal’ and 2007, i.e. exceptional.

Many are afraid that the general association between Tewkesbury and floods is reaffirmed by visitors, which is believed to cause negative economic consequences for the town.

“They’ll look at the weather and think the town is closed.”

Businesswoman

“It [recent media coverage] has brought flooding back into the forefront and makes people wonder whether Tewkesbury should be here or not…….We have started to get places and we really need to carry on, but people tend to get nervous especially when they are put under a lot of pressure about flooding.”

Severn and Avon Valley Combined Flood Group

“We are a holiday town and we rely on that and it is unfair really to think of flooding and then immediately think of Tewkesbury.”

Vicar of Tewkesbury

What this article explores is:

  • The use of media to confirm and form perceptions about certain topics

  • Continued association of Tewkesbury and flooding

  • Sense of community to reverse Tewkesbury’s reputation using positive buzz words such as ‘seasonal flooding’ and ‘open for business’

  • The importance of distinguishing different kinds of floods – especially for floodplain residents, but also for wider society

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“People just become fragmented again. Their lives take over again. I think it was a common experience that drove everyone together.”   Leave a comment


Do disaster events such as floods re-establish communities? And do these communities exist only as long as the common experience prevails? Many of the interviews conducted for this project suggest that flood experience fosters a sense of community that is not necessarily seen under everyday conditions. Many people refer back to the Blitz Spirit, which seems to be the quintessential disaster community they remember. A constant theme throughout this interview is how the community spirit positively – and surprisingly – supports flood victims:

“And the Brewers Fayre, the Travelodge place up by the motorway, was just ram-packed because everyone had just come off there and in fact all of their rooms had gone, and I remember stories afterwards that how well the waiting staff had done. There were free hot chocolate or free drinks and things. I remember a letter in the newspaper at what a credit the staff was. They couldn’t get home but they kept working, serving all of these people and trying to get blankets. I know a couple off the Ashchurch Road; I know they went out with cups of tea and things [to people] that were stuck in the traffic. I think they let some people stay. I think they just said to them, “Are you stuck, do you want to come and stay in our spare room?”

Tewkesbury flooded, July 2007: the disused railway line is the dark green line across the image, uninterrupted by flood water (from http://www.webbaviation.co.uk/gallery/v/greatfloods/).

This emergency community was established in a Travelodge, a place that many people would not visit on an everyday basis. Perhaps an unconventional location adds to the sense of urgency and exceptionality that allows this community spirit to emerge.  The interviewed couple also talks about a disused railway line, now a foot- and cycle-path, as such an extraordinary, ‘liminal’ space.  As the only way in and out of town during the floods, the railway line is another example of a different location of the disaster community that came into existence through the floods. In the image above, the disused railway line is the dark green line across the image, uninterrupted by flood water (from http://www.webbaviation.co.uk/gallery/v/greatfloods/). Normally, people would drive to town in their cars, hardly interacting with each other as they are strapped into their motorized confines. During the floods, however, they had to walk along this footpath, encountering plentiful situations to interact with each other. This would have lead to a temporary community of people sharing experiences or solving practical tasks together.

P2:          I was quite lucky because that railway line close to where you were didn’t flood. People thought there was no way into the town centre but actually there was, and a lot of people used that. A lot of people did their shopping in the middle of town in Tesco.

P1:          It got incredibly busy.

P2:          Normally you would never see anyone on it, and suddenly there were masses of people on it. That was interesting because it actually got people out of their cars for a while for local journeys.

This shows that flooding brings people together but not necessarily in the ways or places they expected.  It also shows how flooding can change human behaviour in positive ways and let stories be told. Many of the people using the footpath might not have talked to each other if the roads had been open.

As the title quote suggests, the couple believe that community is there when they need it.  Their community spirit is dormant, and only re-invigorated in residents’ consciousness during events like this. It is summed up by:

“I think there was an initial bringing the community together, but I think people re-established that they were a community and maybe they don’t do as many events as a community as you would hope, but it still re-established communities. [They] were there and in times of need they come together again.”

 

Maybe the sense of permanent community is a social construct that has vanished in the younger generation. The generational difference does not only become apparent in the meaning of community, but also in the way different generations react to events such as the flood. Both the interviewees highlight this point by detailing their experiences of previous floods. One even regularly played in the floods. This sounds dangerous in this day-of-age, but this participant learned a lot about floods whilst playing in them:

P1:          And like you say […] you used to play in the flood water, we used to go down a back road in Twyning and put our wellies on. Always with our parents, well we did anyway…..

P2:          ……more of a liberal upbringing then (laughs)……

P1:          ……I used to look at the flood water and that was part of it.

Flooding being a part of life of the participant as a child may develop a level of self-education in flooding, leading to a ‘watery sense of place’ and even an attitude of ‘biophilia’ towards floods.

Well actually it is something quite natural for it to flood.

The participants constantly refer to people rolling up their trousers and wading through water, further suggesting a watery sense of place exists in locations like Tewkesbury. With a perceived ‘nanny state’ and improved flood defences and warnings, the next generation are being told that flooding is a dangerous and extremely negative event, whereas people who have experienced many floods see flooding as a part of Tewkesbury. A watery sense of place is beneficial to floodplain residents, as seen in previous blog posts. So with the protection of the younger generation from floods, can they be taught a watery sense of place without frequently being exposed to actual floods? Apparently, many children affected by the floods had little knowledge of flooding:

They [the children] thought as soon as it chucked it down, floods were going to come; they didn’t understand how flooding happens.

By the same token, if flood risk on the floodplain were to decline, the watery sense of place would perhaps disappear along with people’s flood experience. However, events like the 2007 floods are exceptional but may happen again. Flood risk is never totally eliminated. The interviewees say that nature always finds a way of imposing itself, and this needs to be taught to children, for instance with an annual Flood Week in schools; this would expose children to flooding in their home area, and provide them with a current and locally relevant subject.

Throughout the interview, the couple’s generally positive attitude towards the floods, and occasional laughter, was noticeable. This may be due to their own houses not being flooded. This meant that the couple could:

‘Possibly draw out the positives a lot easier than other people can.’

The couple does comment that if they had been flooded, their memories would be different and possibly they would resent the flood. They also tell stories of people who had been flooded, in order to convey a balanced view of the floods.

With memories meaning different things to different people, naturally the starting point to the respective narratives is different. For example ‘If it had been five years earlier and without digital cameras, we would be running out of film’ starts a month before the actual flood event. This person sees the start of a rainy period as an important beginning to his narrative, whereas the present account starts during the heavy rain of Friday 21st July. Both accounts show the way narratives are constructed and personal, despite in parts telling the same story.

What this account explores is:

  • A dormant community spirit which seems to become re-established during flooding or similar disasters

  • Self-education of flooding leading to a watery sense of place

  • Flood victims tend to look at the wider picture

  • The construction of memory, especially the start of people’s narrative.